Let’s break fundraising down to the bio-chemical level: your donors give because they want the endorphin rush. All the catch phrases that donors use to describe the satisfaction of giving, like “changing the world,” “having an impact,” “making a difference,” giving back,” are all ways of describing the fire-hose that blasts their brains with happy-juice.
Imagine you are in a meeting with a donor, and you ask for an unrestricted gift. The donor says to herself, “Unrestricted gift? But I want to change the world!” And the endorphin fire-hose slows to a trickle.
On the one hand, as Guidestar’s Overhead Myth Campaign has effectively argued, gifts without strings attached are the most useful to the organization. On the other hand, giving an unrestricted gift seems more like a chore than a joy. Your donor want to support something special. Who wins?
Let’s tease this quandary apart so everyone wins. Auditors and institutional inquisitors from time immemorial have been working to match income with expenses. And that is a very important service. But it does not serve the conversation with the donor. The conversation with the donor centers on what the gift accomplishes when aggregated with all other support. So please don’t tell your donors you need someone to pay the electric bill because salaries are covered by other income sources.
Earlier this year, I did a Guidestar blog post on The power of a six month thank you. The premise of that post was that before asking for another gift, you need to tell your donor what their last gift accomplished. Let’s walk through that conversation with a donor who given an unrestricted gift. Are you going to say, “We did, um, unrestricted things with your money”? Depending on the donor’s mood at the time, that will sound either boring or scandalous. Be specific about what you will accomplish, with both anecdotes and statistics, and that conversation six months later will be much easier.
Talk to your donors about the impact of their gifts on the community / nation / world. Not what line item in the expense budget it will cover. Make the stories bubble over with juicy details.
Money is an ingenious invention. Its genius is that it is streamlined. Someone who digs graves for a living can take money to the market and buy a salami, instead of trading that salami for grave digging services. The disadvantage is that the streamlining strips money of its personality. Some times donors will include a note that adds some of that personality back in. Like, “we have finally gotten our kids through college, and we realized that we could share some of the blessings we have received with others.” Or, “I got a small inheritance from my favorite uncle, who lived a frugal life so he could enjoy generosity. I am happy to share it with you.” Please don’t focus simply on the cash. There is always a story.
Reanimate the money that comes in the door, especially for large gifts. Ask questions. Appreciate the whole gift, not just the money.
The gift’s impact on the organization can also be unpacked. Does it make the admin person who opens the mail smile? Does it enable the executive director to sleep better? Does it put a lilt in the step of program people who often feel unappreciated? Does it increase the pride that board members feel? Think about how you can communicate all those things to donors. Often, if we unpack the gift at all, we only go as far as saying it motivates other donors. But a generous gift does so much more than that, and donors deserve to know.
Share with the donor all the good things that gift does.
One of the handicaps many fundraisers describe to me is that their organizations “don’t do direct service.” An organization whose impact is delivered through other organizations may have to work harder to communicate the power of the gift to donors. Organizations whose work is advocacy may have to work harder to make it clear to donors that real people benefit from the policy changes that they push for.
Yes, it’s hard work. But it has to be done. And it requires that you give your donors credit for enough imagination to visualize vicarious impact.
Even if your impact is vicarious, tell that story. Assume your donors are sophisticated enough to understand abstractions and networks, but always tell the story in terms of why it matters.
Your donors want to give you money. It feels good. Please don’t get in their way by asking them to buy paperclips, electricity, salaries, or other unrestricted things.
The preceding is a guest post by our regular contributor Paul Jolly, founder of Jump Start Growth, Inc. Paul worked as a fund raising professional for over 20 years before starting the consulting firm Jump Start Growth. He began his career serving various Quaker institutions, then moved to The Wilderness Society, and then the American Civil Liberties Union. In every instance, he has zeroed in on gifts from individuals at the top of the giving pyramid. The focus of Paul’s consulting work is bringing sophisticated major gifts fund raising practices to organizations that are outside of the philanthropic mainstream. His successes include leading three capital campaigns for organizations new to major gifts fund raising, securing millions of dollars in bequest and planned gift commitments, and bringing new life and laser-sharp focus to disheartened development departments.